There was lasagne rivalry in my family – between mamma and my zia Alba who lived next door. It was mostly to do with besciamella and partly to do with ham. The points being debated were: Should you include bechamel sauce in lasagna? Or would it detract from the meaty sugo? And what about thinly shaved prosciutto cotto – was there any place for ham in a lasagne (or as we called it at home “pasta al forno”)? These were the conversations I remember hearing as a child amongst family members and other triestini and polesani, whilst sharing coffee and crostoli or over a game of cards, in a typically Italian way where food dominates discussions.
“Non me va quella blah-di besciamela” (I can’t stand that bloody bechamel sauce) my father would mutter in dialect when we were at home, after eating a portion of my aunt Alba’s lasagna, adding “non capiso perché la devi meterghe parsuto” (I don’t understand why she needs to add ham). Mamma made lasagna that was proudly bechamel-free and ham-free, with ruby-red sugo and shavings of salty parmesan cheese between every layer of eggy pasta. Though she had used besciamella on a few occasions, she preferred to leave it out, not least because of my father, who had strong opinions that he would voice frequently and would probably have refused to eat it. When mamma was making lasagna in the kitchen, my father would yell across the family room to remind her “me racomando, non usar besciamela!” (Don’t add any bechamel sauce).
I found an old black and white photo of the girls in the family from the late 1950s – zia Alba is on the left of the photo holding my cousin; my mamma is on the far right holding my big sister Barbara; with zia Dina and my nonna in the middle taken during the 6 months when my nonna came to visit her chldren in Australia. I love this photo of all the generations of women – and I like to think that my aunt Alba was making her lasagne back then. I remember them from the 1970s – her lasagna was paler than mamma’s; it was sweeter and the sheets of pasta seemed to slide around on the plate. Shaved ham in a single middle layer was an additional salty bonus, that gave the dish a surprising slightly smoky taste. And I loved it, in spite of my family’s preferences. My shy 6 year old self (which is when we moved away from living next door to my aunt Alba) would not have said anything about it, it remains a strong memory none the less, a food memory that has dipped in and out of my thoughts since.
My favourite lasagna these days is a vegetarian version – with optional shaved ham in it, plus optional occasional besciamella. I use ricotta, garlicky silverbeet with freshly grated lemon zest and a simple tomato salsa. When I use white sauce (the other name for bechamel sauce), I make it with smoked mozzarella (scamorza), which complements the smoky shaved ham. Lasagna is a lovely dinner party dish, as you can assemble it several hours ahead then pop it in the over when guests arrive. I use fresh home made pasta but you could buy dried pasta sheets and cook them before assembling your lasagne. I think I could make all of my extended family members happy with this recipe – and if papa’ was still with us, he might not even notice if I sneak in just a tiny bit of besciamella.
Before I get to the recipe, a couple of updates:
1. I have added a few more cooking classes to the second half of 2016.
2. My cookbook is currently being printed (yay)! I am hoping to have copies to sell at my cooking classes later in the year even though the official release is on 1 November 2016 in Australia/new Zealand and the UK (slightly earlier in the US). Click here to find out more.
3. I will be in Italy for the whole of September – in Capri running a few takeover cooking classes with Ristorante Michelangelo and running a workshop later in September with Fabrizia Lanza in Sicily. I cannot wait!
lasagne di ricotta, spinaci e prosciutto cotto
For the pasta:
300g flour for pasta
super fine semolina for dusting
For the sauce:
600ml tinned chopped tomatoes (I used Mutti Polpa)
1/2 large onion, peeled
pinch sugar (optional)
For the filling and topping:
2 bunches silverbeet or spinach (350g when cooked, minus stalks)
splash olive oil
1 small clove garlic, minced
500g ricotta (drained if needed)
1 large egg
70g grated parmesan cheese
zest of a lemon
100g shaved ham (optional)
175g fresh mozzarella
Start by making the pasta: place the flour on a work surface, make a well in the centre in which you will place the eggs. Work the flour into the centre ingredients little by little with your fingers until it is all blended and then knead until smooth. You could also do this step with a food processor, although you will still need to knead it until it is smooth. Form a ball with the dough, cover and allow to rest for at least 30 minutes (a couple of hours is fine).
Whilst the pasta is resting, make the sauce. Place the tomatoes, peeled onion and butter in a saucepan. Simmer for about 40 minutes, remove the onion and adjust for salt and sugar (I find that Mutti tomatoes are sweet and do not need sugar but other brands might). Set aside.
Next, make the filling. Trim the stalks from the silverbeet, chop roughly and wash in plenty of water. Bring a large pot of water to boil and drop in the drained silver beet leaves. Cook for a couple of minutes, then drain well. Allow to cool, then chop finely. Heat a medium sized fry pan and add a splash of olive oil and the garlic. When fragrant, add the silverbeet and cook until well coated with the oil (a couple of minutes). Salt to taste and then turn off the heat. When cool, place in a large bowl. Add the ricotta, grated parmesan, egg and lemon zest. Mix well and add salt and pepper to taste.
Divide the pasta in three, keeping the portion you are not using covered. Lightly flour a working surface. Using a rolling pin, stretch out the pasta until it is of a thickness that will allow it to go through the widest setting in a pasta machine. Roll through the dough, dust with flour, fold, rotate it a quarter turn and roll through on the same setting. Repeat this 5-6 times until the pasta is smooth and still has a bit of stretch (but not too much). Reduce the setting of the machine so that the pasta rolls through a thinner setting each time, until it is about 1mm thick (the second last on my pasta machine). Cut the sheets into pieces that will fit in your lasagna tray; dust with semolina, cover with a tea towel until ready to use.
Bring a large pot of water to the boil, salt to taste and drop in the sheets of pasta, 2-3 at time and cook for a minute. Carefully remove with tongs, allowing excess water to drip into the pot and lay flat in a single layer on clean tea-towels. Cook a few more sheets of pasta and continue until they are all cooed. Pat them dry if they seem overly wet.
Using a heat-proof rectangular dish (mine measured 28 x 18cm across and x5cm deep – plus I had leftovers to make a mini-lasagna in a small dish), start assembling the lasagna. Place a couple of small knobs of butter on the base, then smear a layer of tomato sauce, then cooked pasta sheets, cutting them as you need to so they cover the entire base. Then add a good later of ricotta mixture, spreading it thickly and quite evenly. Next add another layer of pasta; spread a layer of tomato sauce on this; then another later of pasta, a layer of shaved ham (if using) plus an extra sprinkling of parmesan cheese if you like; then another layer of pasta and so on. Repeat until you have used up all your ingredients (you may have 5 or 6 layers of pasta). The top layer should be pasta, then tomato sauce and slices of mozzarella plus extra parmesan.
Bake uncovered for 20 – 25 minutes in a preheated oven at 200C. Remove from the oven, cover in foil and allow to rest for ten minutes before serving.